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Why Scientists Think a Myna Bird Can Talk Like a Human

Myna birds - why do they talk

What is it that enables your Myna bird to learn to speak more than 100 words and utter as many as 30 sentences? 

Lingual articulation is one method of altering the resonance properties of the vocal tract in animals.  A myna bird can move their tongue around their mouth and shift frequencies to make human-like vowel sounds (Klatt and Stefanski, 1974). The ability of myna birds and parrots to modify formants (a prominent band of frequency that determines the phonetic quality of a vowel) contributes to a mynah bird’s ability to imitate human speech.

We used to think that a bird’s vocalisation repertoire depended on how sophisticated its syrinx was”

Peter Marler of the Rockefeller University Field Research Station in Millbrook, N.Y. Dr.. Marler, one of a number of research biologists who specialise in animal communication.

A bird’s syrinx, the functional equivalent of a human’s larynx or voice box, is much simpler than the human vocal apparatus. Most bird syrinxes are the same, so what makes a myna bird different? The answer is their brain.

Myna birds have unique brains to allow them to learn

When most birds chirp or sing they’re making noises that are hardwired into their DNA, but Mynah birds can create new vocalisations which scientists call Vocal Learning. Not only that but something about a mynah birds’ neurons make them incredibly good at vocal mimicry replicating the sounds or calls of other species, including humans. The Greater Indian Hills mynah bird is one of the best talkers.

What is Vocal Learning?

“Vocal learning is the ability to modify acoustic and/or syntactic features of sounds produced, including improvisation and imitation.”

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Only three types of birds are capable of vocal learning, hummingbirds, songbirds and parrots. They all have 7 clusters of neurons in their braids called song nuclei. As other birds don’t have these brain regions scientists think this is what allows the birds to learn.

Are male myna birds better talkers than female?

Recent studies show that the part of a bird’s brain that controls its vocalisations is in the front of the skull, and corresponds roughly to the human cortex. The males of almost all songbird species are the principal vocalisers, and the male forebrains, which control their song output, have been found to be larger than the forebrains of females. But this does not necessarily mean that males are better talkers than females. 

‘Myna birds … only begin to learn human speech sounds under certain social relationships,” Dr. Marler said. ”To get a myna bird to talk you must intrude on its social life.” 

Such ‘intrusions’ would include feeding your pet bird by hand and, in effect, having the bird imprint on you as if you are its parent. Mynas are known to form strong bonds with their owners and the more interaction and conversation you have the more likely they are to mimic you. So boy or girl, it’s entirely up to you to train them to talk.

How a myna birds syrinx works to enable them to talk

Here’s the biology behind the ability for your minor bird to form sounds that are so close to human speech. In your myna bird the syrinx is located at the bottom of the trachea. Sound is produced at the syrinx in an air stream whose speed and volume is controlled by muscles in the trachea. Sound generated in the syrinx travels to the beak through the resonance filters of the supra-syringeal vocal tract.  

Myna birds have articulate tongues to help them make vowels

The syrinx has two resonating membranes, and they can be independently controlled, enabling the bird to produce two different notes simultaneously. By using their articulate tongue and beak as a resonance filter your myna bird can alter these sounds quite specifically to try and mimic what they hear.

bird syrinx
( Image courtesy of: https://wysinfo.com/migratory-birds-passerines-vocals/)

One of the paired external labia in the syrinx is implicated as the source of voicing energy (analogous to the human vocal cords). Some or all of the formant resonances ( the vowel frequencies needed)  are produced by exciting the mechanical resonant modes of the internal tympaniform membrane in the syrinx. 

READ NEXT:  All About Graculas, The Talking Hill Myna Birds: Species info with photos

The five pairs of intrinsic muscles that are associated with the syrinx are capable of controlling membrane tensions and regulating the position of the external labia in the syringeal airways during sound production.

In Summary

So there you have it, myna birds are one of the best mimics of human speech because of their anatomy, their brain and their ability to bond with their owner. Enjoy your new companion and have lots of fun, but be careful what you say around them, they often mimic the words you don’t want them too!

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My family has been breeding and hand rearing parrots, hornbills, toucans and myna birds for over 70 years. My dad is one of the only breeders in the UK of Greater Indian Hill Mynas (gracula religiosa intermedia), and my mum lovingly hand rears every one.

I’m an Animal Behaviourist and Trainer who specialises in teaching Parrots & Myna Birds to talk. This article was inspired by Henry, my recent student. I thought you would enjoy reading about his journey and understanding these incredible birds. If you would like to buy a hand tame talking myna bird ( UK only) then please get in touch and you can join the waiting list.

If you want a chatty, intelligent bird to share your home, then the soft billed myna bird is the pet for you. Its striking features and friendly personality make this bird a favourite among bird enthusiasts who consider the myna one of the best avian mimics of human speech.

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